Kung Fu

Kung Fu

3/20/14 (Sun), New York

Kung Fu, a portrait of Bruce Lee’s rise to fame, was a guilty pleasure. Other than the wonderful M Butterfly, I’m not wild about the author David Henry Hwang, who is obsessed with the tired theme of second-generation Asians struggling to adapt to America. (Bruce Lee, though raised in Hong Kong, was born in San Francisco and tried for years to make a life in the US.) I wish he’d go find his identity and come back with other ideas. And the reviews were lukewarm, which wasn’t encouraging. Still, the idea of a kung fu musical seemed so obvious that it immediately grabbed my attention. 

The story was pretty laughable, with all the signature Hwang touches – father-son conflict over Asian roots, Chinese opera, poor Asian image in the US (there’s actually a reference to Chinese being small “where it counts”). The show opens with Bruce Lee teaching kung fu in the US as he auditions for acting jobs, and covers his days playing Kato, struggling with his own child in Seattle, being strung along on a potential film project with James Coburn, and finally returning to Hong Kong. His father returns in dream sequences to dress him down for not being Chinese enough. Best not to go too deeply into all this. The characters were not too complicated, including a Japanese-American wannabe disciple, Lee’s Western wife, producers trying to find a place for Lee in Hollywood and others. The sequences with Lee in Hollywood were the most interesting. Lee was portrayed as super confident, restless and impatient, which may have been true but didn’t make him very sympathetic as a character. The entire concept needs work. One small irritation was when the American characters kept pronouncing karate in the Japanese way, which is not realistic.

The most notable feature of the show was the choreographed fighting interludes in the various stages of his life – at his school, in Hollywood, street-fighting in his Hong Kong youth. Those are what we’ve come to see, and the jumps and punches and kicks and spars, highlighted by good lighting and music, made the evening worth it. It was a smart move not to have the characters sing. They call it a “dansical”, but the characters aren’t really expressing their emotions through dance; the scenes, though stylized, are actual fights and rehearsals and such. I wonder if they wouldn’t be better off just staging a kung fu movie like “Enter the Dragon”, where the fighting would have better motivation. Jackie Chan might be a better model in that case, since he’s much less serious in his movies than Lee, who just wants to get the job done. In any case, the sequences here are entertaining. The only misstep, a big one, is the abruptness of the ending. Finally agreeing to appear in a Hong Kong film, Lee does a spectacular fight scene, which builds and builds – and then lights out. It’s a climax with no anticlimax. It doesn’t have to be an “Adrian~!!” moment, but I felt cheated somehow. I wish they could have brought us down from the high before walking away.

The cast was adequate for the job, but the standout is unquestionably the star, Cole Horibe. While he evidently made his name on a TV dance program, he’s clearly trained in the martial arts – there’s no way those moves are just a dancer imitating a kung fu fighter. His acting was spirited enough if rather one-dimensional, but it was in the fights where he really shined. I wouldn’t say he’s star material on the acting front, and I imagine he’s going to run into the same casting difficulties touched upon in the script. But he’s ideal in this role. Maybe he should follow Bruce Lee’s lead and go to Hong Kong, where they’re not fixated on being Asian and just want to put as much violence and punching on the screen as possible. If they can translate that to the stage, he could be a real force. The other actors were adequate but irrelevant. Let’s see where Horibe can take this.

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